Los Angeles is not the only place perturbing the sermons of the preachers of history’s end and capitalism’s eternal youth. From Western Europe, too, come all sorts of tales of woe requiring the Panglossian refrain that “everything is for the best in the best of all possible capitalist worlds.” From Bonn comes news of a country threatened by strikes as well as suggestions that the Germans may by now be fed up with performing as Europe’s paragons of virtue. From Milan come stories of corruption on such a scale that Sicilians are soon likely to give the Milanese lessons in probity. From the Corsican city OF Bastia comes proof that the disaster at a sports stadium, which killed fifteen and injured more than a thousand, was the result of sordid pecuniary calculations. This tragedy occurred at a time when French Socialists are being driven to a political, not just psychoanalytical, examination of their relationship with money. Yet the Fact that Western Europe thus reveals the seamy side of its system in no way discourages its eastern neighbors. Indeed, judging by the Mayor of Moscow’s spirited defense of his own mafiosi, one is tempted to say quite the contrary. The new message reads: Profiteers of all lands unite.
A Misbehaving Model?
After years of successful union-bashing, it is almost taken for granted that wage and salary earners will swallow anything. It therefore came as a surprise when the German union of public employees took on the government and, after eleven days of coordinated strikes, forced it to grant salary increases of more than 5 percent, a barrier the government swore it neither could nor would break. The surprise deepened when union members then voted against the compromise reached by their leaders. This, while not relaunching the strike, conveyed the mood of the rank and file on the eve of the crucial trial of strength between the private-sector employers, who stuck to 3 percent, and the powerful engineers’ union, the more than 4 million strong IG Metall, which asked for 9 percent but was ready to settle for anything above 6 percent. Franz Stemkühler, its leader, dismissed accusations of “unpatriotic behavior” by saying he saw no reason why reunification should be a boost for business and a burden for working people. On May 18 the two sides struck a deal at just under 6 percent, roughly the same level the public employees received.
The skirmishes on the labor front were nevertheless followed with fascination in the rest of Europe because, since reunification, Germany has been a puzzle to its neighbors and the subject of contradictory assessments. Has it bitten off more than it can chew or are we dealing with the teething troubles of a growing empire? Should the relatively high rate of inflation and the budget deficit be taken as first signs of a broader European crisis, or are they merely transitional symptoms as Germany proceeds with its “creative destruction” in the east? And if the latter, how will it use its increased power: to federate Western Europe? to resume a Drang nach Osten (eastward expansion)? to proceed with both policies at once? The questions are unanswered because reunification has not gone very far. (“I am glad, at last we are one country,” says the Ossie. “So are we,” answers the Wessie. The joke, though stale, is still topical. The labor conflicts just mentioned were limited to the Federal Republic. The Ossies were affected, since their wages are linked with those prevailing in the west, but they remained interested onlookers.)
Yet the preoccupation of the Western establishment, and of its press, can be attributed to the part the Federal Republic used to play in the old order of things. It could always be relied upon to prop up NATO or insure the unity of the Common Market. The allegedly independent Bundesbank was the keeper of the interests of big business well beyond Germany’s frontiers, while the German workers were being presented to their supposedly more class-conscious British, French or Italian comrades as proof that collaboration with management is not only virtuous but a paying proposition. If this anchor of capitalist stability in the heart of Europe is weighed, where will the Continent drift?
Milan and Morals
In Italy the system was already shaken by the April elections, which showed that people have had enough of the permanent rule of Christian Democracy and its allies, with the resulting nepotism and scandals. The corruption, however, was associated in the public mind with the backward South, not with the advanced North, very much part of modern Europe. The South, incidentally, was conceived of as extending quite far North, since the Lombard League, one of the electoral winners, had a slogan condemning “thieving” Rome–Roma ladrona. Now it has been discovered that the real den of thieves is to be found in the heart of Lombardy, in worthy, bourgeois, prosperous Milan, the “moral capital” of the country.
The miracle is how the long-existing scandal was uncovered. Once again, as in the movie Z, it is a case of brave magistrates showing zeal. The prosecutors arrested a few industrialists and kept them in jail. Unused to such treatment, they began to sing and, together with the politicians involved, they produced the libretto of a gruesome opera likely to echo throughout the country for some time to come. The gist of the story is that Milan had an elaborate system of kickbacks and handouts. No contractor could get work on, say, the municipal sports stadium or subway without a bribe, and the money duly found its way to party coffers and private pockets. While dozens of businessmen and politicians have been indicted, the hunt goes on. The Christian Democrats, as usual, were prominent at the receiving end, though the Socialists were the main beneficiaries. This affair is a terrible, possibly fatal, setback in the brilliant career of Bettino Craxi.
Craxi took over the Socialist Party sixteen years ago and concluded that what was sauce for the fat Christian Democratic goose was sauce for the smaller Socialist gander. He joined the ruling coalition and he wanted to share the spoils. He turned his party into an efficient electoral machine and an instrument for getting cushy jobs for the boys. The operation proved at once a success–he got the premiership and the promise of even higher prizes–and a failure, since his party did not manage to overtake the fast-declining Communist Party. Now Craxi is likely to pay the price, because he cannot deny the connection: Milan was his party’s showpiece; his own son was the local leader and his brother-in-law is among the accused.
But for the scandal, Craxi would have been a serious contender for either the presidency or the premiership. (After sixteen ballots, the Italian Parliament, shaken by the slaying of the anti-Mafia crusader Judge Giovanni Falcone, chose Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, an honest but conservative Christian Democrat, as President of the Republic.) The Democratic Party of the Left (P.D.S.), formerly the Communist Party, which based its conversion on an alliance with Craxi, must now reconsider its strategy. Outgoing President Francesco Cossiga, the leagues and all those who included Craxi in their plans must now revise their calculations.
The ancient Romans had it wrong when they claimed pecunia non olet. Money stinks to high heaven and the Italians are put off by the stench. In one sense, that is healthy. People realize that money, glorified and no longer disputed as a standard, actually corrupts everything it touches, both personal and political. But it serves little purpose to bring down a system if you don’t have a better one to put in its place. With the Socialists betrayed, the P.D.S. bewildered and its splinter, Rifondazione Comunista, already torn between conservatives and reformers, the left seems in no position to offer an alternative, Until it does, the leagues and demagogues will benefit from the natural revulsion of the people. Fortunately, the Italians have learned through bitter experience that there are cures worse than the disease and saviors who begin by promising to clean the air and end by imposing a totalitarian climate.
‘Money That Kills’
Corsica was promised a fiesta. Instead it had a massacre. On May 5 , In the semifinal soccer match of the French Cup, Bastia was to meet Marseilles, the champions. Just as it was to begin, the provisional stand collapsed, bringing its toll of dead and injured. The inquiry has shown beyond doubt that they were victims of greed. Since there was no problem selling tickets even at high prices, it was decided to more than double the seating capacity. A metal structure was put up in a rush. For the sake of profit, regulations were violated and safety checks ignored; the number of people guilty of at least negligence is growing. As the scandal unfolds, one also learns a great deal about the big-money takeover of sports in general and soccer in particular, with its huge under-the-table payments to star performers, its shady middlemen, its double ledgers and its double accounts.
The focus on the corrupting power of money comes at anawkward time for the government because a provincial judge seems determined to bring into court an old case accusing a company of acting as a screen for transfers favoring the Socialist Party. If the Minister of Justice blocks the case, he will be accused of bias. If he does not, the Socialists will once again be associated with crooked ways. Let there be no misunderstanding: The Socialists are no more venal than the other parties. In France, unlike in Italy, the dirty money was used only for party or electoral purposes. Besides, French Socialists can remind the Gaullists or the Conservatives of greater sins committed when they were in office. The snag is that the Socialists must now argue that they are not quite as bad, whereas in the past they claimed to belong to a different species. The unease among their rank and file illustrates the gap between the moral posture in opposition and the party’s conduct in office once it had been converted to what is called, euphemistically, the “culture of government.”
The quotation “money that kills” is taken from a speech by François Mitterrand when he took over as leader of the Socialist Party in 1971. He was quite scathing: “money that buys, money that crushes, money that kills, money that ruins and money that rots the very conscience of the people.” He probably would be ready to repeat those words today. There is a basic difference, however. At that time Mitterrand also claimed that he was in favor of “a break with capitalism.” Today his Prime Minister, Pierre Bérégovoy, is the darling of the Bourse and of international finance. You cannot at the same time preach enrichissez vous and sing “money is the root of all evil.” More accurately, you can, but at the risk of being accused of schizophrenia or, against the present background of poison and putrefaction, hypocrisy.
Stinking smell of success? Judging by an article by Gavril Popov In the Paris newspaper Libération, it is pure perfume for the new class rising beyond the Elbe.
From Pangloss to MacHeath
About a hundred years ago, at the time of the famous Panama Canal scandal, two Jews in Eastern Europe were discussing the skills of Western speculators. “Fantastic, these Parisians,” claimed one. “They can make money out of nothing.” “Let’s not exaggerate,” answered the other. “The people we could find here, only we haven’t got the canal.” Now the Eastern Europeans have got their “canal,” one that Western swindlers could envy. With the collapse of Communism and the resulting legal confusion, the scope for thievery, for converting public property into private gain, is tremendous. In Poland, banking and other scandals can no longer be counted. Today it is the turn of the privatizers in Prague. But Russia, too, is getting ready for a mass transfer of property and the rise of great fortunes amid growing poverty. The novelty in Popov’s prose is that this daylight robbery is raised to the rank of a doctrine.
The author is not just anybody. Editor of Voprosy Ekonomiki, once the Communist Party’s theoretical organ, he is one of the leaders of the Democratic Russia movement and was Moscow’s first freely elected Mayor. It is true that he has been openly accused of allowing fellow councilors on the Moscow soviet to take over state property at a pittance. But one thing Popov cannot be accused of is lack of candor.
In the Libération piece, his basic premise is that “the Russian people are, in their majority, against a market economy.” Hence, for this democrat, the political system cannot be one “in which Parliament would reflect the existing structure of society.” Change must be wrought by “a thin layer of the intelligentsia,” made up of “intellectuals, officials, soldiers and security people.” The current regime must help these reformers work in peace “without being compelled regularly to face universal suffrage, without requiring popular sanction in a transitional period.”
One of the main functions of the Russian government is to protect private enterprise, Popov claims. The appearance of private shops selling at high prices, he writes contemptuously, has led to the emergence of “protesters” struggling for “people’s happiness” by breaking the windows of such shops. The authorities must punish not only the vandals but also the policemen who turn a blind eye. The author has an odd conception of the role of the Mafia in the West-one limited to its control of drugs and pornography. In Russia, he argues, it has a wider scope. Foreign companies, for instance, need criminals to protect them from other criminals. To Popov, who once had scruples, the only thing that matters is the victory of the market. Give him the mafiosi, the nomenklatura, any sort of scoundrels, as long as they can be turned Into good capitalists.
People who have converted almost overnight from the neo-Stalinist bible to the gospel according to Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman have a strange mixture in their heads. But they also represent real interests. Their bizarre constructions bring to mind not so much Pangloss, Voltaire’s parody of Leibniz, as Brecht’s Mack the Knife, who in a famous passage from The Threepenny Opera announces the end of the era of small thieves and the beginning of that of big robbers: What is robbing a bank, compared with setting up a bank!